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Could You Pass Harvard's Entrance Exam From 1869? 741

erfnet writes "The New York Times remembers back to when 'college was a buyer's bazaar' and digs up 19th-century classified ads from Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and others. In competitive efforts to attract students from the limited pool of qualified candidates, applications were taken as late as September for an October freshman class. Vassar offered lush room accommodations. The expectations were high: Latin, Greek, Virgil, Caesar's Commentaries; Harvard's entrance exam from 1869 is posted (PDF). Could any of us pass the exam today?"
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Could You Pass Harvard's Entrance Exam From 1869?

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  • Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by heptapod ( 243146 ) <> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:16PM (#35777358) Journal

    I doubt they'd be able to pass a modern test either. These people grew up with a different curriculum than those at the latter half of the 20th century / new millennium.

    • This is especially true with regards to languages; Greek and Latin are optional, if even available, while it seems as though they were mandatory back then.

      • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

        by gadzook33 ( 740455 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:32PM (#35777876)
        Ok, could you pass the math part? I have several degrees in engineering and I don't think I could. But then, upon reaching grad school I always felt I was woefully under-prepared compared to the 98% of my class that wasn't from the US. Looking at this exam just reminds me of that. And it doesn't look like the inclusion of general relativity would have slowed these guys down much.
        • I was educated in US public schools, but I am pretty sure that I could ace that one, and that by todays standards it would have been considered an easy test.

          • by mcmonkey ( 96054 )

            The algebra, trig, and geometry is all pre-calc. I would hope a high school junior expecting to go to college would get most of those. (Certainly one expecting to go to Harvard or study any hard science.) The only one I doubt I'd get was the one with square rods.

            As for the Latin & Greek, give me a zero on that section.

            I comfort myself knowing my physics and chemistry would win multiple Nobel prizes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well, I'm a Harvard grad, and I can't answer any of the questions involving Greek and Latin translation on this test. I'm about 50% on the History and Geography section off the top of my head (i.e. without looking anything up), and the math sections look pretty trivial. All this proves is that we don't learn as much History and Geography these days, even at Harvard, and Greek and Latin simply aren't important parts of the average high school (or college) curriculum and are no longer considered mandatory k

    • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

      by PFI_Optix ( 936301 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:38PM (#35777508) Journal

      I think the whole thing speaks volumes to the disconnect between academia and reality. While an education in the high points of historical philosophy might be of limited use, much of that is pure nonsense intended to filter out undesirable applicants who, while quite capable of learning and performing, lack the "breeding" to be accepted. It was a great way to ensure that only like-minded people got degrees and continued the cycle.

      Colleges have gotten a lot better in the past century, but they still spend a lot of time making sure you think how they want you to think, or at least can pretend to.

      Disclaimer: I'm a college opt-out who was accepted to Harvard but didn't go (I applied just because I could). I decided there was a better way into the real world that the bullshit you have to endure at university. Take that how you want.

      • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Garble Snarky ( 715674 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:47PM (#35777568)
        Just curious - how did you acquire enough experience to decide not to go to school based on that reasoning, if you never wen in the first place?
        • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

          by PFI_Optix ( 936301 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:01PM (#35777680) Journal

          I did go to school, just not Harvard. A year in university before dropping out and going to work, then three more semesters at other schools before deciding I was right to stay away.

      • Colleges have gotten a lot better in the past century, but they still spend a lot of time making sure you think how they want you to think, or at least can pretend to.

        That's pretty much the purpose of schooling as a whole, at least in theory. Why would you seek an education, if not to learn how to think? I can dig up facts and figures any time I want, as long as I know how to research; what schools should be teaching is the ability to put those facts together into a cohesive model, and apply them to the real world. If anything, I think schools should put more emphasis on teaching students how to think and research, and less time focusing on rote memorization.

        As an asi

        • While it's true that "how to think" is an important skill, the basic idea of a canon of knowledge (aka rote memorization) is really very important. A shared body of knowledge is critical to communication, and if it's present can make expressing very complex thoughts much easier. It's not especially important for most people to know that Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, but it's important to know that it happened after the Crusades and before the Enlightenment.
        • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @12:18AM (#35778138) Homepage

          There's a substantial difference between teaching you to reason and teaching you reason in the same way as other academics, inevitably reaching mostly the same conclusions. It is not without reason that academics have been accused of living disconnected from the real world, having convinced themselves that their highly theoretical model of how the world works actually reflects reality. Or perhaps ideological models is the right word, most working men have a more pragmatic approach.

          Then again, I'm not so worried about academic people out of touch. Far worse are the career politicians that have never had a "normal" job in their life, all they've done is to work for political organizations. They have some very funny ideas about how the world runs plus an overinflated ego about their own importance. They only decide how to split the cake, they're not the ones baking it.

      • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

        by metlin ( 258108 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:28PM (#35777848) Journal

        The idea behind a liberal arts education is to become a well-rounded person, with a (hopefully) better understanding and appreciation of the world around you.

        This is something that is sorely missing in the vast majority of the population today, thanks to the transactional view of education. The idea of applicability to real life is something that was perpetuated by the likes of corporations, who needed skilled people but did not want to train. In fact, until fairly recently, companies offered training programs outside of your acceptance, and it was a given that you would learn those skills when you joined a company. These days, that is passe.

        Colleges have become trade schools, and are expected to teach trades that are applicable to a job, with little else. Except for a handful of top notch schools, the vast majority lack depth in what they teach. This lack of appreciation and understanding stretches to both the sciences and engineering as well as the arts and humanities. No one wants to learn computer science, they want to learn programming. No one wants to learn the philosophy of morality, they want to get a law degree. No one wants to learn how to paint or understand the fundamentals of the visual arts; they would much rather learn "animation" and "game design" join a design studio.

        The unfortunate side effect is that this is a shift in perception, one from when people wanted to be well rounded and enlightened, to one where people merely want to learn a skill and make money.

        And if you think that historical philosophy is not enlightening, or even applicable to the real world, you are missing out on some of the greatest thinkers that this world has ever produced.

        • Re:Nope (Score:5, Informative)

          by jdpars ( 1480913 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:43PM (#35777946)
          Just some more info to aid metlin, "liberal arts" comes from Latin "artes liberales," literally the "freeing arts." Up until very recently, these included science. The modern definition (at least in the USA) of liberal arts is art, music, literature, language, social sciences, and history. That's a horribly lacking bunch. I spent almost two years as an engineering major before switching to a "liberal arts" degree and I feel I am only just barely well-rounded because of my strengths in math and science.
        • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 )

          of course we also train a lot more people too (both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population). In practice the details of law, and the depth of knowledge that define a law degree are no less than that required to define the philosophy of morality. The few that truly grasp the latter in addition to the former can become professors. Everyone else just gets a law degree.

          The more complex the world the more time needs to be spent to understand it at any level. I don't think schools lack dep

        • The idea behind a liberal arts education is to become a well-rounded person, with a (hopefully) better understanding and appreciation of the world around you.

          This is something that is sorely missing in the vast majority of the population today, thanks to the transactional view of education. The idea of applicability to real life is something that was perpetuated by the likes of corporations, who needed skilled people but did not want to train.

          Colleges have become trade schools, and are expected to t

        • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

          by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @02:46AM (#35778740)

          "The unfortunate side effect is that this is a shift in perception, one from when people wanted to be well rounded and enlightened, to one where people merely want to learn a skill and make money."

          The problem is there is too much people want to experience today and too much work. Over the centuries education as we know it was not a requirement for existence. Over the last few hundred years public schools were invented to deal with the demands of the industrial revolution. You have to understand the very origin of schooling for the masses. What you're talking about is schooling for the elite, the people who could afford to be learned. People who had enough money/sheer interest to enjoy education for it's own sake.

          The educational requirements today just to exist keep going up and hence this is why universities are flooded with applicants who want skills for money. It's the natural outgrowth of needing more and more just to earn a living, or at least it is from societies perspective whether it is true or not.

      • Re:Nope (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jdpars ( 1480913 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:40PM (#35777918)
        Learning Latin and Greek open up an entire world and culture to a student. When they are taught outside of the terrible rigor and memorization we always hear about or see from Hollywood, they are terrible. But when instead they are shown to be gateways to the rise and fall of whole civilizations, well, it gives a student perspective. Another way to think about it is like this: few subjects have what my teacher-education classes call "enduring understandings." These are supposed to be more than facts, but knowledge that stays with a student throughout their life. There are so many of these with subjects like classical languages that they permanently affect a student's life. Yes, many of the elite would educate their children in Latin and Greek, and the knowledge or lack of knowledge on these subjects was probably used unfairly to judge applicants. But the languages were studied because there was value in them, and to this day there still is.
      • Places like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, more often than not, is more about getting to learn the right people rather than just subjects. Some people people try to network/schmooze a million other people in some pathetic attempt to advance, going to these schools allows you access to colleague that will be in the advanced ranks in coming years and have them see you as one of their own.

        Right now, most SC justices are from Yale/Harvard despite the fact that most SC justices historically never even graduated from

      • by catchblue22 ( 1004569 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @01:35AM (#35778482) Homepage

        I think the whole thing speaks volumes to the disconnect between academia and reality.

        Your post, and the fact that you are rated as "insightful" speaks volumes to the shift that has occurred. Your statement, and the rest of your post, where you claim that " education in the high points of historical philosophy might be of limited use..." speak volumes of a profound poverty of mind, where education and the search for truth is predicated in material gain. This intellectual poverty forms us into individual intellectual islands floating through time, neither looking backwards nor forwards. We are separated from the origins of our society, our culture, our values. We forget that our society was modelled after ancient Greece. Ideas such as private property, money, justice, freedom of speech, constitutional government all come from ancient Greece, and were refined and developed by the Romans (at least during certain periods of Roman history).

        Before you write off classical education, read Plato's "The Apology", where you start to see the beginnings of the ethical underpinnings of our modern world. Read Plato's Gorgias, where Socrates carries on a debate about many issues that still rings true today. See if you can see in this quote a great summation of the modern field of advertising and public relations in his statement about "oratory":

        Socrates: The same is true about the orator and oratory relative to the other crafts, too, then. Oratory doesn't need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters; it only needs to have discovered some device to produce persuasion in order to make itself appear to those who don't have knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it. Plato - Gorgias - 459c

        Reading the first volume of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" has given me a great appreciation for how civilizations develop and change, and about how valuable our current stable democratic systems are. When you look at long succession of Roman emperors who were all removed by various methods of murder, you start to realize the value of electing leaders.

        When you speak of the "disconnect between academia and reality", I think you minimize the work of centuries of great thinkers. When you look at the world logically, you begin to realize that it is very strange. You start to realize your own limitations. It gives you a sense of humility, both for yourself and for the poor sods who think they have figured it all out. You start to realize what pathetic creatures we are, how we weave illusion upon illusion. It is the way we are, and the best we can do is to try to understand the world. However, we should never believe that we have "figured it all out", because when we do that, we effectively stop thinking. Socrates said that "as for me, all I know is that I know nothing". He spent his life questioning and seeking knowledge, but he always remembered his limitations.

        Education cannot simply be about utility. It has to also be about making us more complete as human beings. It should help us in our search for wisdom and truth in the world. Socrates said that "the unconsidered life is not worth living." When you do not consider the purpose and meaning of your own life, you become a football, being kicked around in someone else's game.

    • I doubt they'd be able to pass a modern test either. These people grew up with a different curriculum than those at the latter half of the 20th century / new millennium.

      The exam was probably a little easier than it appears. The three translation questions are all out of classic literature (Greek, not Latin), and they give you most of the words, so it's likely largely a matter of having memorized the translations of those phrases and (failing that) knowing Latin declensions and conjugations. The various

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      On top of that, I'm not sure the demographics are even remotely comparable either. The college-for-the-masses thing in the US didn't really start until after WW2. In the 1890s, high school wasn't even mandatory yet for most of the country; checking wiki (history of education in the united states) that didn't happen until decades later, and initially it was only mandatory to age 14. In 1890 there were only 200,000 high school students. Period. In the entire country. And that's a few decades after the given t

      • it was unlikely to be the "this test is geared such that if you don't get at least 90% of the points, you have failed to master it enough" that we use today for the more serious stuff like college admissions

        It always surprises me that the US makes the grade boundaries so high. It seems to be a sort of anti-elitism. The difference between a perfect student and a passing student is only 10%. The exams end up containing lots of filler questions, which no one who was awake for the exam could get wrong and then just a small number that actually separate the students.

        In my university, a pass was 40%, and the top grade was 70% or above. The spread for the top students is greater than the spread for all of the

    • I'm not sure I understand why some people here are getting so defensive about it. The article never claims that we should go back to using that test, it is simply presented as a historical curiosity and might invite one to reflect on the standards of today; particularly for me it brings up the balance between the liberal arts and the more vocational paths taken by engineering programs like mine.

      I'm not ashamed I can't pass it. Well, I am a little bit, because I fail the Latin sections miserably and took 3

    • True, by our standards the math portion of their test would be simple by the standards of anyone applying to Harvard (and seriously expecting to get in), where top tier students are learning advanced calculus in high school. It's interesting that although history and geography haven't changed much, our focus is very different, being far less focused on ancient history and far more focused on the past few hundred years (including, in the US, events occurring shortly before 1869!).

      I suspect candidates back th

  • by satsuke ( 263225 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:19PM (#35777376)

    Ah yes, the education of that day, based on assumptions that are still present in some form today.

    Might have been a more refined age, though for today I'm pretty sure your average CS major needs to be able to quote Dante in his original language about as much as he needs an extra heavy bender prior to the big test.

  • hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by ShiftyOne ( 1594705 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:23PM (#35777404)
    I wonder if they were allowed to use calculators?
  • by buchner.johannes ( 1139593 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:23PM (#35777408) Homepage Journal

    Man, if the examiner had been smart he'd written page 3-4 in LaTeX and saved himself a lot of handwriting!!!!

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:28PM (#35777430)

    Could any of us pass the exam today?

    Well, the theory of relativity, evolution, anything about computers, most modern medicine, etc., would be straight out because they didn't exist then. And I doubt many people here would disagree that knowing how to use a computer and a basic understanding of physics something every college would want in its students. It's no use trying to test ourselves according to the standards of over a hundred years ago... we know so much more about the world it's not even fair. The smartest person of that era would look like a total idiot today just trying to get by with what we take for granted -- driving a car, using a cell phone, browsing the internet, etc.

    • by daniel_mcl ( 77919 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:46PM (#35777566) Homepage

      If your idea is that the average person alive today -- never mind the average high school student -- has any knowledge at all of relativistic mechanics, evolutionary biology, computer science/engineering, medical science, etc., I think you'll find you're sadly mistaken. Yes, the average teenager knows how to use a cell phone. Clearly this is an insurmountable obstacle, and Isaac Newton himself would be unable to figure out my Nokia.

      At any rate, the material on the "arithmetic" and "algebra" sections is still taught and used in schools today, and I'll outright guarantee you that if I printed those out and took them to a Calculus III section at the local university I'd be unlikely to get a very high pass rate, despite the fact that most of them have memorized how to take dozens of integrals or apply Lagrange multipliers.

      Knowledge isn't worth as much as people seem to think; at its heart, it's just trivia. What matters is the ability to think, and that doesn't change from generation to generation.

    • by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:05PM (#35777708)

      OK, here's a revision. With a week's training, I'll bet the 1869 man could drive a car, use a cell phone, or browse the internet. Could you, with a week's training, learn algebra, geometry, trig, history (in depth), geography, Latin and Greek? The two sets of tests aren't equivalent. (Sorry, I'm being a bit unfair. You did mention relativity, evolution, computers, medicine. But relativity isn't taught in high school. Evolution is a simple and obvious concept. Medicine, beyond the germ theory of disease and other easy bits, isn't taught in high school. That leaves computers.

      The obvious lack in the old test is science, there should have been something on agriculture or animal husbandry, or medicine or astronomy.

      The obvious "We don't care" for modern times is Greek and Latin.

      The sad lack in modern education is history. One reason our modern politics is so thoroughly screwed up is that a high quality understanding of history has been lost to the general population for a century.

      • by Draek ( 916851 )

        With a week's training, I'll bet the 1869 man could drive a car, use a cell phone, or browse the internet.

        I'll take that bet. Try teaching 70-years-old people to drive a car, use a cellphone or browse the internet. Then remember they're people that saw those technologies be born and mature in front of their eyes throughout the years, while the 1869 man is not.

        In fact, I'd bet if you took a hundred volunteers to teach a hundred 1869 men to do those things, after a week at least half your groups would've seen casualties from the 1869 man killing either himself or his teacher on account of the alleged "satanism",

        • by metlin ( 258108 )

          Poor example. I wish someone had taught you the basics of statistics in school -- your selection group is awful. 70 year old people, really? Have you looked at the scope of cognitive development in a 70 year old?

          Assuming you take a normal age group, your assumption is blatantly false. You've clearly not worked with refugees, or people from societies that have not seen or used modern devices. My wife (who, incidentally, goes to Harvard) volunteers with healthy policy organizations. She works with people peop

      • by mgbastard ( 612419 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @02:18AM (#35778664)

        The sad lack in modern education is history. One reason our modern politics is so thoroughly screwed up is that a high quality understanding of history has been lost to the general population for a century.

        I was looking hard to see if anyone had a glimpse of why greek and latin are important to education. You almost nailed it.

        We've lost the art of teaching of how to think. The gentlemanly Greek and Latin were taught towards skills in reading texts, not in conversing to Joe Greek on the street about how he feels today; the pupil is then empowered to read many great and early works documenting the foundation and thought, and its progression, that form the fundamentals of our knowledge in philosophy, government, sciences and mathematics. Reading the literature of the time in the original source language conveys the subtext much more fluidly, thus enabling full comprehension. Individual languages are colored by the culture speaking it: Much is lost in translation. If you are to understand how to think, and achieve parity with where we have already tread in thought, then you need to understand first-hand how we arrived at the present knowledge, complete with the traps and tangents, not just the right answer. You learn how temporary some right answers are, giving you the humility and perspective to grow beyond the works of mankind thus far.

  • PDF Files? (Score:5, Funny)

    by LazloHollyfeld ( 99908 ) * on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:30PM (#35777454)

    I find it hard to believe they had PDF files in 1869.

  • After utterly failing the Latin and Greek sections, I think I'd get a pretty bad reputation with any reviewer, even though I could do the rest just fine with a slide rule. Of course, I could follow up the geometry section with a lovely essay relating the theories of computability, genetics, and medicine, and the reviewer would be equally confused.

    The parts that are important in modern innovation are still certainly appropriate for an entrance exam. The only difference I see between this and a modern exam is that the Latin and Greek sections have been replaced by English tests and some basic science questions. After all, the purpose for knowing Latin was that is was supposed to be the universal language of scholars, and during the burst of scientific progress following WWII, English took a firm grasp of that role.

  • by Wintermancer ( 134128 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:35PM (#35777482)

    With the exception of the arithmetic, logarithms and trigonometry, algebra and plane geometry, not a chance in Hell.

    Now, how well would a prospective applicant fare with some of today's knowledge? Introductory quantum mechanics can be taught at the high-school level. Now someone out Victorian era and give them the mathematical equations and they would fail due to not having the conceptual foundation to understand it.

    Hold onto your seat for the big reveal: Knowledge advances over time, but correspondingly, some knowledge is made obsolescent. How well would any of do at knapping flint knives and spears? You might make a passable one, but not one that would qualify as a quality tool in the Paleolithic era.

    Progress, folks. It's a good thing.

  • by parmadil ( 811515 ) <parmadil&gmail,com> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:02PM (#35777686)

    I'm two weeks away from a master's degree in Ancient Greek. I'm not sure I'd pass the Greek portion of the exam. Why? Because it focuses on extremely rigorous memorization of obscure details (and I'm talking obscure details of an arcane dead language, mind you). I can read even difficult Greek pretty well, but that doesn't mean I can decline 'trirs' (a noun in a highly unusual declension), or form the correctly-accented participles of 'histmi', or decline much of anything in the unusual dual number, off the top of my head and without consulting a grammar. Nor, I think, could most of my colleagues. The translation *into* Greek, however, is quite easy. It's a hard test for college freshmen, to be sure, but it's also testing based on a very different sort of educational objective. Passing the Greek section requires more memorization than actual competence in the language.

  • Latin answers (Score:4, Informative)

    by dsanfte ( 443781 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:02PM (#35777692) Journal


    1. Me non refero quam divitem esse Gygen. (Unsure how to decline 'Gyges' but we'll go with that for accusative. I guess it's a Greek paradigm.)

    2. Quis clarior Graeciae quam Themostecles? Quis, cum in exilium expelleretur, injuriam suae patriae ingratae non tulit, sed idem quod ante viginti annos Coriolanus fecisset?

    3. Primo veris venit consul ad Ephesum, et militibus ab Scipio acceptis apud milites contionem habuit, in qua, virtute sua collaudata, adhortabatur ad novum bellum cum Gallis suspicandum, qui (ut inquit) Antiochum auxiliis iuverunt. (I left in 'ut inquit' and 'in qua' although they were meant to be omitted. I wondered if the last bit should be infinitive/accusative construction due to indirect speech, however I think 'ut' demands the indicative.)


    You could copy this out of Wheelock so I don't see the point of reproducing it here.

    • by orzetto ( 545509 )

      [Ego] non refero quam divitem Gygen esse.

      Me is the accusative, you either use the nominative ego or you don't use the subject at all (it is understood by conjugation of refero). Also, verb should be last in sentences (usual, though no rule). Vale.

  • by erice ( 13380 ) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @11:16PM (#35777784) Homepage

    Two things bear heavily on the difficulty of being admitted to a school:

    1) The reputation of the school at the time of application.
    2) The pool of qualified students with the means to attend.

    1869 was a time when most people in the US made their living through manual labor or subsistence farming. Neither occupation offers the means or the motivation for higher education.

    And I have to wonder just how prestigious the Ivy League schools were in 1869. This was just 90 years after the revolution. I expect that "schooled in Europe" carried more weight than any kind of degree from Harvard. What did it take to get into Cambridge in 1869?

  • surely the vast majority of Harvard applicants would fail this test. Greek and Latin or quite depreciated. Simply replace those languages with equivalent questions in relevant modern languages or subjects.

    One strong point of modern college is that language classes have be depreciated for fields they have no bearing. A robotics or CS major will have zero use for latin or greek or really any language other than english.

    On the other hand, Latin is an immensely useful language if you are planning a major in any romance language. Latin Italian but knowing Latin gets you Italian at an 80% discount, Spanish at 70% and French at 60% . Its learning 4 languages for the price of 2. Greek is pretty much useless in this regard, not many languages have a Greek base that isn't already covered by greek>latin loan words.

    As other people have mentioned, some of the exam was politically driven. It had some ulterior motive built in to exclude those of a lesser social class. Sure, greek and latin had more value in education at that time but not so much that a business degree required such knowledge, especially greek.

  • you're all liars (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hazel Bergeron ( 2015538 ) on Monday April 11, 2011 @03:50AM (#35779006) Journal

    Predictably, half the comments here reply, "Oh, wow, this test is easy except the Latin/Greek because that's not important!"

    Well, bullshit on all counts.

    (1) The purpose of learning Latin and ancient Greek is not to enable you to speak Latin and ancient Greek. They've already been dead languages for millennia and they were arguably even more dead then (Greece being even less relevant). It's an exercise in the study of language and of foundations of European culture and literature. You don't get the same experience by learning "Japanese for anime fans".

    Anyway, I "aced" Latin at school - that sort of thing was something I enjoyed and came reasonably naturally. Many years later, I have forgotten enough of it that I could not do a good job of these questions. The translations into Latin would today leave me hopeless without a dictionary. What is more, these aren't trivial Latin beginner questions.

    (2) History/geography - at least some people are admitting that they don't know some of these, though I see a lot of "oh about half". Really? Did you actually sit down with that sheet and no references and write detailed geographical and historical answers? Did you then go one by one checking at the end that they were all correct? Or did you just think "oh yeah I've heard of that before" and sneak in a "check" to Wikipedia, confirming knowledge you didn't really have to mind?

    The subject of my masters thesis was the history of an area of mathematics; background reading required me to be familiar with specific areas of classical Greek and Roman history. I enjoyed History at high school, though none of it was classical. Latin class included a certain amount of Roman history surrounding Pliny the Younger and Virgil, with an earlier school covering the historical context of the Odyssey and the Iliad. And yet I don't think I could do justice to any of the essay-type questions. "Pericles - the Man and his Policy" - really? Are even a significant minority claiming they even know more than a sentence or two about Pericles?

    (3) The maths section. Oh, what a surprise, everyone is claiming that the maths section is trivial. Well, bullshit again. I have a postgrad mathematical education and, yes, I can probably answer these questions. But I would have to think about the plane geometry proofs (which, it is likely, the candidate would be expected to have simply memorised for this test) - I can't recite all of them off the top of my head and I bet I'd stumble on some details for some of them if I were to actually write the answers all out rather than just wave my hand over the paper dismissively and say "this is easy".

    What is more, you annoying geeks, there were no electronic calculators in the mid-19th century. You know what this means? It means that half the challenge is doing the arithmetic quickly and without mistakes. And, whether by reading original Leibniz or the speling errors on /., there is one reassuring thing I have come to know (I am reassured because I do it myself and thought I was the only one): numerate geeky types make lots of trivial mistakes. A good mathematician - perhaps the sort who is intuitively familiar with geometry - might make a bad doctor or accountant, i.e. may fail in a profession where speed and accuracy with numbers is important.

    Whenever I visit Slashdot and there's a topic where people have the chance to put their knowledge to the test, I always see a huge number of people claiming that they did wonderfully at the test. And yet, in real life, hardly anyone ever performs at such superheroic levels, whether dumb, average or intelligent. This isn't because /. isn't full of super-geniuses - even though it isn't - it's because the sheer amount of information accessible in the world today means that everyone necessarily specialises a great deal. No particular random test which has not been prepared for is likely to fit the knowledge of a random sample of even fairly bright individuals.

    I guess it's just a predictabl

    • I guess it's just a predictable defence mechanism. Some moderately intelligent types at school used to do it: each time they'd finished a test, they'd proudly announce to everyone (particularly those who they regarded as competitors) how easy it was; telling them the answers to all the questions they were confident about. You know what? This sort of person never reached the top. That place was reserved to (i) the quietly confident - the real genius types who had no insecurity they needed to make up for; and (ii) the fairly talented who also happened to be extremely hard-working (and had no time for such nonsense).

      I always found it amusing when someone said the test was easy. Because of course, they'd never get it all right.

      Actually, the people who annoyed me the most were the ones who'd go "oh, it was really difficult, I think I might have barely passed" and ended up getting 100% anyway. Humble motherfuckers.

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